Common Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Solve Them
The human body requires many vitamins and minerals to be able to run, but not getting enough of one or more of these important nutrients is very common. Deficiencies will of course affect our health, and can cause symptoms that range from mild to serious. Since March is National Nutrition Month let’s look at four common nutrient deficiencies, their symptoms, and what we can do to get more of those vitamins and minerals.
While it is called a vitamin, Vitamin D actually is more like a hormone, because your body produces it on its own when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is important because it regulates the body’s absorption of calcium, and has a few secondary benefits like supporting the immune system. Not getting enough of this nutrient can lead to bone loss, and pain in the back, bones, and muscles. It can also cause a weakened immune response, depression, hair loss, a lessened ability to heal wounds, and having less energy. This is an incredibly common deficiency, but there are some easy ways that you can overcome it.
For most vitamins and minerals, the best way to get more of them is to eat foods that are rich in that nutrient. Vitamin D however is a bit different, as there aren’t as many foods that are rich in the vitamin as there are for others. Despite this, fatty fish and egg yolks are good natural sources, and there are even some food products, like milk, that are artificially fortified with the vitamin. The best way of course is to get more sunlight. Though the amount needed varies by skin tone and where one lives, getting 10-30 minutes of sun multiple times a week is a good rule of thumb.
One of the most important nutrients in the body is magnesium. This mineral is involved in numerous functions, including the processing of protein and DNA, maintaining bone health, assisting with the proper functioning of the nerves and muscles, and the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure. Not getting enough magnesium usually doesn’t result in any symptoms immediately, but it can contribute to serious problems if it carries on too long. Complications include weakness and cramps in the muscles, fatigue, headaches or migraines, inflammation, higher risk of anxiety and depression, and it can even contribute to high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and irregular heartbeat.
Unlike Vitamin D, there are many foods that are rich in magnesium. These foods include fruits like bananas and avocados (yes an avocado is actually a berry), and dark, leafy vegetables like spinach. Nuts and legumes like cashews, almonds, and peanuts, and meats like fish and organs meats, are all good sources as well. You can also find a good amount of magnesium in whole grains and even dark chocolate.
Worldwide, the most common nutrient deficiency is iron. Iron is important because it helps us produce healthy blood cells. Iron binds to hemoglobin, and allows it to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, allowing those tissues to survive and carry out their functions. Iron also binds with myoglobin, which helps store oxygen in the muscles. In addition to oxygenating the blood, iron also provides immune system support, assists in the conversion of blood sugar into energy, plays a role in keeping the skin, hair, and nails healthy, and even supports cognitive functions.
Normally an iron deficiency won’t have any immediate symptoms, but as the problem worsens, so too will the symptoms. These symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, and fatigue. Iron deficiency can also eventually cause iron deficiency anemia, where the red blood cells aren’t able to carry oxygen properly. Extreme fatigue or weakness, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, cold feet or hands, pale skin, headaches, and chest pain are all signs of iron deficiency anemia, and if you believe you are experiencing it, you should talk to your doctor.
Getting more iron isn’t difficult. One of the best ways to get more iron is to eat meat; red meat, turkey, poultry, pork, and fish are all good sources of iron. Other sources include beans, legumes, broccoli, dried fruit like apricots or raisins, peas, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and dark, leafy greens. Meat however is still a better source of iron because it contains heme iron, which is easier for the body to absorb than the nonheme iron contained in plant based sources. Vitamin C can help increase iron absorption, and it is often needed more when someone relies on nonheme iron.
Next up we have calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body. Most of the calcium in our bodies is stored within our bones and teeth, where it is responsible for maintaining their structure and health. A small amount of calcium is needed for other critical functions, like muscle function, nerve function, assisting the blood vessels in moving blood, and even hormone secretion. Calcium deficiency can lead to a condition called hypocalcemia, and the risks of this occurring increase as we age, especially among women. Symptoms of hypocalcemia include aches, cramps, or spasms of the muscles, fatigue, depression, memory loss, confusion, and brittle nails. It also increases the risk of osteoporosis, which results in weaker and more brittle bones that can be injured more easily.
You can probably guess the first source of calcium that I am going to mention: dairy. For most people, dairy and dairy products are obviously a great and easy source of calcium. Many however, like those with lactose intolerance, must look elsewhere to get the necessary amount of calcium they need. Other good sources of the mineral include almonds, seeds, fish like salmon and sardines, lentils, beans, figs, and edamame. Dark and leafy vegetables like kale, collards, and spinach once again make an appearance, as they are also calcium rich, along with all the other nutrients they contain.
Getting all the proper nutrients may seem difficult, but there are a few steps you can take to make it easier. Educating yourself about the dietary recommendations for your age and sex is the first step. Reading nutrition labels and having a good idea about the contents of what you are putting into your body is the next step. You will have an easier time figuring out what you need more or less of. Sometimes you may find that you will need extra help with some nutrients, possibly even help from supplements, while other times you may just need to cut back on certain foods. Blood testing can provide an even deeper look into what vitamins and minerals your body is getting, and it’s a good idea to utilize this tool if you want the complete picture of what is happening inside your body, especially if you are experiencing nagging symptoms that seem to come from nowhere, preventing you from being the healthiest version of yourself.
Check out the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Learn more about Vitamins and Nutritional Support